“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Christmas!” Paul Dyer told the audience at Sydney’s City Recital Hall. Indeed, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Noël! Noël! concert is as sure a sign of the festive season’s arrival as any Messiah. This year’s Noël! Noël! – subtitled “Follow Your Star” – was in many ways a more traditional offering from Dyer, a stripped back orchestra and the Brandenburg Choir, but it still sparkled with typical Noël! Noël! festivity.
Bonnie de la Hunty, Paul Dyer and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir. Photo © Steven Godbee
The program opened with Hildegard von Bingen’s O eucharis in laeta via, rendered in lush ‘Christmas adventure film’ colours by Alex Palmer’s arrangement, decked with the tinsel of chimes and cymbal rolls. Though more ‘St Eucharius’s magical journey to the North Pole’ than ecstatic meeting with the Son of God, the chant was a joyous way to kick off the celebrations – and to introduce rising star soprano Bonnie de la Hunty, the Hague-trained musician making her debut with the Brandenburgs.
De la Hunty brought a shimmering, light-toned soprano to the Christmas table, and if it was a touch delicate for some of the more boisterous arrangements, she shone when the texture receded to lute accompaniment in While Shepherds Watched, her sound particularly exquisite against the gentle sway of hushed choir in the traditional Gartan Mother’s Lullaby and Rameau’s Ô Nuit from Hippolyte et Aricie. She brought agile vocal filigree to Handel’s Let the Bright Seraphim from Samson (in resplendent duet with baroque trumpeter Leanne Sullivan) and her luminous solo line in Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Only in Sleep was perhaps the most magical moment in the concert.
Leanne Sullivan, Bonnie de la Hunty and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir. Photo © Steven Godbee
Amidst the more ‘serious’ repertoire – chants Rorate Coeli and Veni Veni Emmanuel, Monteverdi’s Laudate Dominum – and tradition carols like O Little Town of Bethlehem, there was also plenty of Christmas cheer. The Brandenburg musicians let their hair down in Palmer’s We Three Kings of Orient Are arrangement – sackbuts blazing on high in the organ loft – and in Palmer’s high-energy medley A Sparkling Christmas, familiar carols propelled by driving strings.
The Brandenburg Choir was a warm, confident presence throughout, but their sound was particularly fine in the a cappella polyphony of Francisco Guerrero’s Maria Magdalena and nostalgic in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.
While beautiful, this year’s Noël! Noël! was a little low-key compared to previous years. But when the concert finished with old favourites, from O Holy Night to Stille Nacht and O Come, All Ye Faithful, there was certainly a sense that Christmas is here.